In the spring of 1970, the Indian yogi Swami Rama wanted to convince Western scientists of the power of yoga, so he submitted himself for study. He arrived at the lab of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, to meet with Dr. Elmer Green, who pioneered research around biofeedback, or the process of becoming increasingly aware of bodily functions that are usually thought of as involuntary. Rigged up with sensors, on his first day at the clinic, he reportedly changed the temperature of his hand by widening and contracting the arteries in his wrist, leading to a difference of ten degrees Fahrenheit between the left side of his palm — which looked rosy red — and the right, which looked ashen gray, as Dr. Timothy McCall notes in his Yoga As Medicine.
Since Rama visited Topeka, yoga has become mainstream (despite his and other gurus‘ penchant for sex scandals). As you can see from the number of yoga mats slung over people’s shoulders as they make their way across American cities, yoga is huge right now. According to Yoga Journal’s national survey (PDF), as of 2016, there are more than 36 million yoga practitioners nationwide, up from 20 million in 2012, and 15 million in 2003. They spent (PDF) an estimated $16 billion on yoga classes and gear in the last year. Yoga has gone from New Age weirdness to thoroughly mainstream — a 2015 marketing paper found that from 1980 to 2009, the way newspapers and nonfiction books cover yoga shifted from spirituality to fitness. “Today, the term ‘power’ refers more to a physical workout than to spiritual empowerment,” the authors write.
With that, yoga has gotten more empirical scrutiny. While there’s a need for larger scale, more thoroughly designed research, studies indicate that a yoga practice helps in treating depression and anxiety (in multiple meta-analyses), managing stress, and improving the well-being of cancer survivors. Research indicates that the practice helps young musicians find flow states, women over 55 experience transcendence of the ordinary, and ashram residents reach “a radical shift in consciousness of the type most people experience only when they are using psychoactive drugs.” Therein lies the exquisite difficulty of studying it: Asana, or the series of poses that you probably think of when you hear “yoga,” is a physical exercise, yes, but also a psychological and perceptual one, like its sibling, meditation. Almost all the researchers I talked to warned me that no one completely knows “how yoga works”: The expansive fruits of long-term practice are intensely subjective, and it’s rather difficult to design a study that gains access to another person’s phenomenology.
Because of its long and intercontinental history, even finding a definition for “yoga” is difficult. Amy Matthews, educational director of the Breathing Project and co-author of Yoga Anatomy, says that yoga is any “movement practice” where your body, breath, and attention are all focused in the same place. A runner who enters into a meditative state, with breaths synced to footfalls, is doing yoga. In a standard asana practice, there’s a quality of having the body, the breath, and the attention all in conversation with each other, rather than your attention completely running the show. It’s not mind over matter; it’s mind talking to matter. Take, for example, the classic sequence of poses called a sun salutation, where the practitioner goes from standing to toe touch to lunge to plank to backbend and up again. Continue reading >>